Only a lawyer, also known as an “attorney”, who has a valid license issued by one of the states in the United States may practice law. A lawyer may only practice in the state in which the person is licensed except in some situations involving federal or international law, federal courts and federal authorities.
Lawyers do not obtain different licenses depending on their area of specialization. All lawyers who qualify are given one kind of license to practice law. However, some states offer a special additional credential for attorneys who have exceeded the standard licensing requirements in a particular area of practice.
What it means to “practice law” can be complicated, but generally it means to give legal advice to a person who has a legal problem. An example of someone with a legal problem would be a tenant who has been evicted from their residence by their landlord.
How Do I Become an Attorney?
While each state has its own requirements, generally, a lawyer must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent from an accredited college or university. The person must also have graduated from a law school that has been accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) with a juris doctor (JD) degree.
When a person graduates from law school, they do not automatically become a lawyer. Every state in the U.S. requires that a law school graduate take and pass the state’s bar exam before they are awarded a license to practice law. These exams are long and rigorous. Bar exams test the graduate’s legal knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge to specific situations involving real people with real legal problems.
In addition, a person must be found to be of good moral character before they are allowed to practice law, and must demonstrate their knowledge of legal ethics by taking a Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). This is a test of the test-taker’s mastery of professional ethics.
For example, in New York state, there is a State Board of Law Examiners which administers the state’s written bar exam twice a year every year. There are two parts to the exam. The Multistate Bar Examination, a multiple-choice test covering subjects relevant to the practice of law in all states, lasts for one full day.
The second part is a full-day exam consisting primarily of essay questions which require application of New York state law to factual situations. The essay questions include one Multistate Performance Test (MPT) question. The MPT is a national exam.
Finally, a person applying for a license in New York must also take and pass the MPRE, as described above. The MPRE can be taken before or after a person graduates from law school. After passing the written bar exam, an applicant is certified for admission to a Committee on Character and Fitness in one of the four Departments of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court.
The applicant must then file an application for admission to the bar with the appropriate department of the Appellate Division. Each applicant must attend a personal interview with the Character and Fitness Committee. An applicant is admitted to the bar only after the Character and Fitness Committee recommends the applicant to the Appellate Division for admission to the practice of law in New York state.
If the applicant is approved by the court, the Department of the Appellate Division conducts a formal swearing in ceremony, which is the final step. Upon being sworn in, the applicant is legally qualified to practice law in New York state.
Is There Any Alternative Pathway to Becoming a Licensed Attorney?
Only four U.S. states offer full lawyer apprenticeship programs which mean that a person can pursue an alternative pathway to becoming a lawyer that does not involve graduating from law school including:
- California: In California, a person can avoid both an undergraduate college or university education, as well as law school;
What cannot be avoided by “reading the law” is a state’s bar exam. All attorneys in the United States must take and pass a state bar exam in order to practice law legally. Reading the law is a way to avoid only attending and graduating from law school and only in four states.
“Reading the law” is sometimes referred to as “apprenticeship” and this is a good word to use to describe this educational method. When a person reads the law, they do basically serve an apprenticeship with an experienced, licensed attorney who should guide their study to make sure it is comprehensive and effective.
The apprentice would want to ensure that they study all of the subjects tested on the bar exam. In addition they would want to study any area of legal specialization they may want to pursue when they become a practicing lawyer, for example securities law or environmental law.
In California, the program is referred to as the “Law Office Study Program.” In California, a person cannot simply study for the bar exam, pass it and practice law. A person who has not earned a juris doctor degree from an accredited law school must spend at least four years in a law office studying under the guidance of a licensed attorney. Virginia and Vermont require the same 4 years of apprenticeship in a law office with a licensed attorney.
It is also true that many law students work in law firms during their years in law school. This is perfectly legal, because they work under the supervision of a licensed attorney. They may not appear in court or in other court-sanctioned proceedings, such as depositions, because they are not licensed. They may, however, do research, draft court filings, engage in investigations and perform other in-office tasks associated with representing clients.
What Can an Attorney Do?
There are several functions which only a lawyer can perform, The most common are as follows:
- Only a lawyer is qualified to advise a person about a legal problem;
- Only a lawyer is qualified to represent a client in a court of law or at court-sanctioned proceedings;
- Sign official documents, such as any document that is filed with a court on behalf of a client.
If a person holds themselves out to be a lawyer even though they do not have a license to practice law. they commit a criminal act. All states make it illegal to engage in the practice of law without an active license.
It is also important to note that even a person who has a license may not be able to practice law. A person may choose to voluntarily allow their license to become inactive. In this case, they still have the license, but they cannot practice law.
A person’s ability to practice may be suspended by the licensing state’s authority because the person engaged in some kind of misconduct in their practice. While a person’s license is suspended, they may not practice law.
And a person might lose their license completely because of misconduct, in which case, they may no longer practice law. They have been “disbarred” in legal terminology.
Also, a person can only practice law in the state in which they are licensed. And every state regulates the practice of law in a multitude of ways, e.g. how lawyers can advertise themselves and their services.
What Are the Penalties for Practicing Law without a License?
The unauthorized practice of law can be either a misdemeanor or a felony criminal offense depending on the state.
Anyone convicted of the unauthorized practice of law faces a range of possible penalties, again, depending on the state as follows:
- Incarceration: A person convicted of the crime of the unauthorized practice of law can face a possible term of imprisonment in jail or state prison. A misdemeanor conviction would mean no more than one year in a county jail, while a felony conviction would allow for a year or more in prison. In some states, a prison term of up to 5 years or more in prison is possible in some states;
- Fines: Fines are frequently imposed as punishment for the unauthorized practice of law. Misdemeanor fines are often $1,000 or less, while felony fines can exceed $5,000 or more per offense;
- Probation: A person convicted of practicing law without a license may be sentenced to a term of probation. While on probation, the person must comply with the specific conditions of probation. This might include such requirements as paying fines, regularly reporting to a probation officer, finding or maintaining a job, and not committing any other crimes;
- Restitution. If a person convicted of the unauthorized practice of law charged the victim a fee for their services, the court is likely to order the payment of restitution. Restitution is a separate penalty apart from any fines the court imposes as punishment. Restitution must be paid, however, to the victim to compensate for any loss they suffered.
What Are Paralegals and Notary Publics?
A paralegal is not a lawyer. A paralegal is a person with some specialized legal training which allows them to assist lawyers in their professional tasks, such as research and writing. They might work in a law firm or a lawyer’s office. Some of them work independently. If they work independently, a person would want to be careful about ensuring that a paralegal is not practicing law without a license.
A notary public is also not a lawyer. A notary public is a person who witnesses and verifies a person’s signature on some kind of official document when it is important to prove that the person who signs their name on a document is in fact the person they claim to be. So, a notary public checks a person’s identification, e.g. a driver’s license or passport, and then witnesses the person’s signing of a document. The notary then makes an official record of the transaction if proof of the authenticity of a signature is ever required.
If anyone who is a paralegal or a notary public offers their services as a lawyer, a person should decline the offer and report them to their state’s bar association.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with an Issue of Practicing Law without a License?
If you have been charged with practicing law without a license, you want to consult an experienced attorney.
If you have been victimized by a person who has acted as a lawyer for you when they did not have a license, you want to report this to your local law enforcement authority, i.e. the police or the county sheriff. You should also contact your state’s bar association to report the person. If a lawyer who is licensed has committed some type of misconduct, e.g. refusing to return a retainer fee that should be returned, again, you want to contact your state’s bar association.